To Super Bowl or Not to Super Bowl

Marquee events provide opportunities for institutions to run pricey advertisements, but is the risk worth the reward?

February 11, 2016

Last Friday, Inside Higher Ed’s Ellen Wexler wrote a piece about institutions running regional Super Bowl ads during this past Sunday’s game. Three questions were posed by the reporter: Should colleges and universities spend money this way, will the ads be effective, and what kind of audiences would they reach with these ads? The piece outlined the risk taken by Kent State University in running a regional ad and shared the university’s belief that perhaps the opportunity was too good to pass up.

The reality is that hitching your institution and its message to any mega event like the Super Bowl or a presidential debate has pros and cons. All marcomm professionals carefully consider monetary and messaging investments on a case-by-case basis and these marquee moments require additional reflection. I’ve seen some institutions use these ads to position themselves well and take advantage of the opportunities and others throw money at publicity with little consideration given to messaging or strategy, with the focus instead on personal vanity or pet projects.

So, how should institutions weight their options?

The cost for a Super Bowl ad is pretty significant and the source of funds is likely to be scrutinized. For a public institution, there is always the potential critique that any ad is not an appropriate use of state funds or tuition dollars. Just the questioning of fiduciary priorities should be enough to make marketing teams pause before signing that ad buy, even if the funds come from sources other than the state or students’ payments. And for many institutions, it is difficult to maintain a narrative of tuition affordability and strong stewardship of funds if those dollars are used for a pricey Super Bowl placement.

Before any institution follows Kent State’s lead and spends any money on advertising, it should always ensure there will be a return on the investment. If the dollars spent on a Super Bowl ad have the potential to pay dividends in exposure received, applications submitted, students enrolled or alumni engaged, then it may be worth the hefty price tag. If the return on investment includes potentially long-term boosts to image and reputation among key audiences, then it’s worth the purchase. If the ad is seen as incongruent with the mission or perceived prestige of the institution, then potential backlash and critique should be considered.

Once calculating the upside, it might be a good idea for an institution to move forward with an ad of this scale. For example, a quick Google search for Kent State’s ad produced a number of links to media placements on the ad itself within the university’s target media markets as well as coverage of their new branding campaign, “Undeniably Kent State.” In other words, Kent State aired their ad regionally and generated media coverage for the ad buy itself, which is a fantastic twofer. With 80 percent of the university’s students coming from the region in which they advertised (per the Inside Higher Ed piece), it appears that that the combined marketing and media approach has a great chance to be considered a success.

Now we just need to wait for application, deposit and donation numbers to come in before we determine if the move was “undeniably” brilliant.


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